How do we Learn?

Conditioning, Social Learning, and Information Processing


In learning, there are two different types of conditioning: classical and operant. Classical conditioning focuses on learning via associations. Our involuntary responses, including emotional or physiological reactions, to some stimuli can be attributed to classical conditioning (Woolfolk 254). Ivan Pavlov first discovered this idea when he conducted his famous salivating dog experiment. In it, he initially sounded a bell for a dog, to which it did not salivate. He then gave the dog food, causing it to salivate. Later, by pairing the bell with the food, the dog would involuntarily salivate upon hearing the bell, even if there was no food present (Woolfolk 255). Classical conditioning can be transferred into many arenas: classrooms, advertising campaigns, and more!

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, emphasizes the implementation of physical rewards or punishments to either promote or extinguish a behavior. When B.F. Skinner developed the idea of operant conditioning, he sought to explain how behaviors are acquired within an individual’s environment (Woolfolk 256). The key concept in operant conditioning is reinforcement: positive or negative. Positive reinforcement involves adding a reward after a desired behavior; for example, giving a student a compliment when they finish all their homework in a neat and timely manner. Negative reinforcement is the removal of an undesirable consequence following a certain behavior, such as reducing a student’s classroom chores if they actively participate in class.

These two types of conditioning explain how humans learn to associate different responses with various stimuli, in addition to the capacity in which humans are environmentally motivated or deterred from pursing a behavior.

Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura proposed the social learning theory as a challenge to behaviorism (Woolfolk 278). In it, he established two differences, one between enactive and observational learning, and another between learning and performance. Enactive learning is learning from the consequences of our experiences. Rather than a consequence being a reward or punishment, enactive learning views consequences as information providers that can influence motivation and establish outcome expectations (Woolfolk 279). Observational learning is just that: people learn from watching the world around them. By focusing our attention on the world around us, we make decisions about appropriate behaviors, which affects our learning. Bandura’s distinction between learning and performance provides an explanation for some limitations to the behavioral theory. He suggests that just because a person may not exhibit a behavior, that does not mean they do not know that behavior. In his “Bobo” doll experiments, Bandura found that children modeled the behaviors to which they were exposed and observed. While some of the children were initially hesitant to act aggressively toward the doll, they all exhibited th learned behavior once offered rewards for modeling the aggression (Woolfolk 279).

In some cases, performance does not always reflect learning. This can happen due to various reasons. A person may know and have observed a negative behavior, such as driving under the influence of alcohol, but that does not mean that they will engage in that behavior. On the other hand, someone may know a song by heart, but when they get on stage to perform, nerves may get in the way of remembering the lyrics. Both of these examples indicate that a person has learned something, but either chooses not to or is inhibited from displaying the behavior or learned material.

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Information Processing

There are three types of memory that allow us to process information: sensory, working, and long-term. Sensory memory is the first step in information processing, as it helps shape how we perceive certain stimuli (Woolfolk 294). Typically, sensory memory lasts less than 3 seconds, despite the significant amount of information we intake. In this short time, each of our senses codes the information to which we are exposed. For example, visual and auditory stimulation are briefly recorded as images and sound patterns, respectively (Woolfolk 294). The sensory information that we take in can be processed either by building patterns or using those existing patterns to understand a situation.

Working memory involves the temporary storage and active processing of information and lasts between 5 and 20 seconds (Woolfolk 297). This processing ability differentiates working memory from short-term memory. Working memory has four essential elements. The central executive focuses and controls attention and other mental resources; the phonological loop and visual sketchpad are the short-term storage for auditory and visual stimuli, respectively; and the episodic buffer creates complex memories by consolidating information (Woolfolk 298). Working memory is exhibited when we recall a recipe, or guidelines for a project.

Long-term memory can hold an unlimited amount of information for an indefinite time period (Woolfolk 304). While we may have trouble accessing information if it has not been rehearsed, we can use the knowledge in long-term memory to help us process and understand the information in short-term memory.

These three types of memory all work together to help us process and retain information. None is exclusive of the other, as they all contribute to our knowledge and impact how we process future information.

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What does this all mean?

Human learning is no small feat. While it may seem like the product of caffeine-fueled-all-nighters (at least in college), learning is a complex process that is influenced and enabled by a variety of internal and external sources. All of the aforementioned processes contribute to human learning and provide a glimpse into the system that allows us to acquire knowledge and engage in certain behaviors.